Nicaragua's Balance of Power Shifts

VICENTE JUAREZ had no time to celebrate his election victory over the Sandinistas last February - he was too busy finding a place to hide. Fearing a violent reaction from defiant Sandinista militants who roamed the streets with sticks and stones, Mr. Juarez - an outspoken supporter of the contra rebels - slept in a different location every night for a week.

Nobody found him.

But the onetime prisoner (he was jailed several times for allegedly collaborating with the contra rebels) emerged from hiding to find that the balance of power had swung in favor of his National Opposition Union (UNO).

Not only did UNO win more than 70 percent of the votes here, giving Councilman Juarez a good chance of being chosen as mayor on May 3. But even Sandinista voters are gravitating toward the new pole of power. Some are replacing Sandinista banners outside their homes with UNO flags.

Suddenly, after 11 years as a perceived enemy of the leftist Sandinista government, Juarez finds himself as the unlikely authority in this dusty frontier town.

But unlike Managua, where civilized transition discussions have led to a sort of coalition government between President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro and the Sandinistas, the abrupt shift in authority in the countryside is causing considerably more upheaval and uncertainty.

Here among the jagged green mountains of central Nicaragua, the scars from the seven-year contra war are fresh and close to home. Nearly every family has some tragedy to relate about a son or husband killed in combat, often fighting for the contras.

There is danger that the spirit of revenge will prevail over the spirit of reconciliation.

The biggest fears of both the local UNO leadership and the Sandinistas revolve around the demobilization of the thousands of United States-backed contra forces sprinkled across the hills outside Rio Blanco.

Just a few miles down the road, a contra leader who has taken ``Rio Blanco'' as his nom de guerre rests with his 150 troops. After a three-week march from Honduras, they are slowly making their way toward a designated security zone 30 miles away.

Juarez, who visited ``Rio Blanco'' with the fighter's mother last week, insists that the Nicaraguan Resistance, as the contras are known, should not disarm until Gen. Humberto Ortega Saavedra, the Army chief, leaves his post.

``We could govern with an Army run by Humberto, but only if the Resistance keeps its weapons,'' says Juarez, who has a son in the contra forces and another who was killed in action.

But Lt. Mercedes Cortez, chief of the 300-person Sandinista Army battalion here, says General Ortega will preside over the enormous Army until the contras move into nearby security zones and turn over their weapons, as stipulated by a recent agreement.

One state security lieutenant, who has personally interrogated Juarez on several occasions about his alleged recruitment of teenagers for the contras, says that, ``with Vicente, it is difficult to have any reconciliation'' because he has a ``vengeful spirit.''

``Once they take power, UNO will try to run the Sandinistas out of town,'' the lieutenant says.

The Sandinista Front here seems to be disintegrating on its own. Hundreds of supporters have switched their allegiance to the UNO coalition, some out of conviction, but most out of convenience. It's safer to be aligned with the people in power.

The Sandinista youth organization, for example, once had more than 300 young militants. Since the election, it has dwindled to about 20 members.

``It seems that the Front is disappearing,'' says Davia Toledo, a Sandinista schoolteacher who spent three years with the contras before returning to sell her information to state security. ``Many people without a political conscience have gone with the UNO.''

Ms. Toledo blames the seepage on the Sandinista party leadership, which has had only one meeting with local leaders since the electoral shock.

UNO activists here have also gone out of their way to make the dwindling number of Sandinista militants feel unwelcome in Rio Blanco. When they do address a Sandinista in the street, which is infrequent, it's often with a snicker or an insult. (See accompanying story.)

``We're walking on a razor's edge in town now,'' says a US aid worker here sympathetic to the Sandinistas. She ticks off the various occasions in which UNO activists have let the air out of her car tires or made remarks to her in the street.

At a large UNO rally to celebrate the inauguration last Saturday, some demonstrators threw rocks at her house. Not far away, Sandinista state security police sat on the steps of their headquarters and listened impassively to the UNO speeches.

Peace may be just around the corner for most of the country, but for the moment, the fear and loathing in Rio Blanco have not subsided.

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